Category Archives: Plants

From Parakeets to Jelly Beans

Male rose-ringed parakeet (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

One thing leads to another:

  • News of a parakeet leads to a food named for pigeons
  • The food leads to the plant it grows on
  • The plant is also cultivated to host an insect
  • The insect creates a sticky substance called lac
  • We harvest the lac to make shellac and use it on …
  • … furniture …
  • … and jelly beans.

The parakeet:  When I learned that rose-ringed parakeets (Psittacula krameri), above, are a nuisance in India because they devastate the pigeon pea crops I wondered … What are pigeon peas?

The food: Pigeon peas (Cajanas cajan) are a tropical legume first cultivated in India 3,500 years ago. The peas are used like lentils as a staple food in Asia, Africa and South America.  I’m sure I’ve eaten pigeon peas without knowing their English name.

Immature raw pigeon peas (left); Mature & split (right) (images from Wikimedia Commons)

The plantCajanas cajan plants are grown for their peas (inside the bean pods) and as the host of a beneficial insect, Kerria lacca.

Pigeon pea plant with seed pods and a flower (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The insect:  Scale insects lead sexually dimorphic lives. The males can fly to find females, but they don’t eat. The females are immobile, permanently attached to their host plant, sucking its sap. To protect themselves the females produce a sticky covering called lac. Kerria lacca females, shown below, use several trees as their host plants including pigeon peas.

Lac tubes deposited by Kerria lacca insect (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

We harvest the lac to make shellac.  According to Wikipedia, we “infest” the host plants with Kerria lacca females. When the branches are well coated we cut them (sticklac), scrape, sieve and heat to remove impurities (seedlac), then use heat or solvent extraction to create shellac

Alcohol dissolves shellac and makes it spreadable but the liquid form has a 1-year shelf life.  Shellac is stored as flakes and mixed with alcohol at the time of use.

Shellac flakes in various colors (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The furniture:  Shellac is a superior finish, especially for antiques, but it is fussy.  When I was a kid my father refinished furniture in his spare time and at one point tried shellac. We kids quickly learned “Don’t touch that table!”  Damp glasses left water rings (which faded), alcohol marred it, and household cleaners damaged it.  However, shellac is beautiful.

Restorer applying shellac hand polish to a table (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

And back to food:  When mixed with edible alcohol, food grade shellac makes the shiny coating on jelly beans and other candies.

Jelly beans (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

One thing leads to another, from parakeets to jelly beans.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Cranberries Float

Cranberry on Mt. Davis, 14 Oct 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

In October the Botanical Society of Western Pennsylvania went on a field trip to Christner Bog on Mt. Davis, the highest mountain (actually a plateau) in Pennsylvania.  We were admonished to bring waterproof boots so I wore my best muck boots. They’re ankle high and they were not enough.

It rained so much this fall that the bog was over-full.  I learned that day that plateau bogs are surrounded by a moat of deeper water. (Knee-high boots required!)  It was a huge challenge to tiptoe on submerged branches and lumps to cross the moat.

On the other side of the moat, the water was still too deep for my boots so I stood on a hummock while everyone else explored the center of the bog.

Botanical Society of Western PA outing to Christner Bog on Mt. Davis, Oct 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

They found lots of cool plants among the sphagnum moss.  I looked down and found wild cranberries (Vaccinium oxycoccos).

Wild cranberries among the sphagnum moss, Mt. Davis, 14 Oct 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

So I picked one, shown at top.

I wish I’d opened the berry to see the air chambers that hold its tiny seeds.

Cranberries inside and out (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Instead I dropped the berry in the moat on my way out, hoping an animal would eat it later.

I’d forgotten that cranberries float.

(photos by Kate St. John)

From Pumpkin To Peppermint

Pumpkin (Cucurbita pepo) and peppermint (Mentha x piperita) (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

This weekend we’ve switched seasonal plants from pumpkin to peppermint. 

Pumpkins (Cucurbita pepo) are cultivars of New World squash that are popular at Halloween because they’re easier to carve than turnips (really! read more here). 

We could eat pumpkin year round — mashed, pureed, in soup, cooked like squash, or eaten as pumpkin seed snacks — but most of us consume it in pies from Halloween to Thanksgiving.  After that pumpkin pie has a lot of competition from Christmas desserts.

Peppermint (Mentha x piperita) is a cultivated hybrid of watermint and spearmint native to Europe and the Middle East.  We use its leaves for flavoring year round but it doesn’t hit its stride until candy cane season arrives.

According to legend candy canes were invented in 1670 for Christmas in Cologne, Germany … but maybe not. The first time they’re mentioned is in the early 1800s.  In any case, peppermint became the flavor of Christmas. 

Pumpkin pie and candy canes (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

By Monday morning pumpkins will be passé, peppermint is prospering.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption links to see the originals)

Jack O’Lanterns

Two Jack O’ Lanterns (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Happy Halloween!   It’s the day for pumpkin Jack O’ Lanterns.  Did you know there’s a mushroom by the same name?

On my bird walk in late September we found these jack o’ lantern mushrooms near the Schenley Park golf course.

Jack O’Lantern mushroom, Schenley Park, 30 Sept 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

Jack O’ Lanterns (Omphalotus illudens) are common mushrooms east of the Rocky Mountains and are often found in urban settings.  Typical of their species, these were sprouting from an old stump.  Though they resemble edible chanterelles, jack o’ lanterns are poisonous and cause vomiting, cramps and diarrhea.  

Reference guides say that jack o’ lantern’s gills glow in the dark but this must be hard to see.  The Mushroom Expert says he’s wasted three hours of his life trying to see them glow without any success.

We found these mushrooms on 30 September and took a lot of photos. There were so many mushrooms!

On 1 October I walked past the stump and the mushrooms were gone.  Someone must have thought they were chanterelles, got greedy, took them all … and got sick.

Now that’s scary!

p.s.  It’s illegal to remove mushrooms from City parks, even for personal use.  Check the Western PA Mushroom Club’s Mushroom Picking Rules & Regulations in PA for places where it’s allowed.

(pumpkin photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original. mushroom photo by Kate St. John)

Gentian Gone To Seed

Bottle or closed gentian (Gentiana andrewsii) blooms in September in western Pennsylvania.  By the end of October it’s gone to seed.

In bloom this gentian’s tightly closed petals prevent most insects from reaching its nectar, though bumblebees can force their way in. 

Bottle gentian in bloom, September 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Carpenter bees take a shortcut. They drill a hole in the petals to access the pollen and nectar. Once there’s a hole, honeybees and other small insects use it, too.

When I found the faded gentian shown above, I plucked a dried flower to examine the seeds.  Aha!  The closed petals have two holes in them.  The seed pod also has two curled knobs at the top.

I pulled the knobs apart to reveal the seeds …

… and scattered them nearby. 

I hope they’ll become new gentians next year.

(photos by Kate St. John)

The Same Invasive

Porcelain-berry, intricate leaves, October 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

There are many varieties of porcelain-berry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata) in the Pittsburgh area.  Most have maple-shaped leaves (below), but I occasionally find the intricate leaves showcased above.

Porcelain-berry, maple-shaped leaves, October 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

No matter the variety, you can identify them in October by their porcelain-like berries.

Porcelain berry (photo by Jonathan Nadle)

Unfortunately, Ampelopsis is invasive. When you see Pittsburgh hillsides engulfed like this, it’s probably porcelain-berry.  This hill is along Pocusset in Schenley Park.

Porcelain-berry drapes a hillside in Schenley Park, September 2013 (photo by Kate St. John)

(photo of berries by Jonathan Nadle, all other photos by Kate St. John)

Annoying And Inspiring

Closeup of burdock seed pod (photo by Kate St. John)

Look closely at burdock seedpods (Arctium sp.) and you’ll find them covered in tiny hooks.  The hooks arc away from the ball-shaped bur, ready to latch onto a passing animal.

Burdock seed pod (photo by Kate St. John)

They also latch onto us!

Burdock burs stuck to a sweater (photo from the Plant Image Library on Flickr)

But that’s not the end of it.  When we try to remove the bur, it bursts open to release wind borne seeds.

Mature burdock seedpod, burst open (photo by Kate St. John)

Burdock is so annoying that it inspired the invention of Velcro. The man-made hooks are easiest to see after lots of use, shown below.

Learn more about the relationship between burdock and Velcro in this vintage article: Nature’s Velcro.

Closeup of the hooks on well used velcro (photo by Kate St. John)

(photo of burdock burs on a sweater from the Plant Image Library on Flickr; click on the caption to see the original. All other photos by Kate St. John)

Why Not To Clear Your Garden This Fall

Goldenrod gall with a woodpecker hole (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

I’ll bet you have a gardening project planned this weekend or next. Here’s some time-saving advice:  Don’t clear your garden in the fall.

Why not?

  • Seeds on the old plants provide winter food for birds and animals.
  • Insects overwinter on plants in egg masses, cocoons and galls.  Birds eat those insects. 
  • The brush provides shelter for the birds.
  • You won’t have to mulch.
  • You’ll enjoy watching birds among the old plants.

The photo at top shows that an old goldenrod gall contained food for a woodpecker. He hammered a hole to get the bug.

On Throw Back Thursday, read more about this time saving plan in a 2010 article: Why Not to Clear Your Garden

p.s. The only downside I can think of is this: It’s hard to plant bulbs when the old stuff is in the way. 

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)